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Franz Lidz
August 04, 2003
Gravity rules when the U.S.'s fastest kids roll into AKRON for the unsinkable Soap Box Derby
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August 04, 2003

It's All Downhill

Gravity rules when the U.S.'s fastest kids roll into AKRON for the unsinkable Soap Box Derby

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While Editor of the National Lampoon in the late 1970s, Toledo-born satirist P.J. O'Rourke published a newspaper parody that tweaked the provincialism of his home state. By conflating the towns of Dayton and Akron, he came up with the Dacron Republican-Democrat, a distillation of all things Ohio. A Page One headline screamed TWO DACRON WOMEN FEARED MISSING IN VOLCANIC DISASTER. The quieter subhead: Japan Destroyed.

Only a Buckeyes fan would consider the Buckeye State to be the center of the sporting universe. Yet, in the wee world of kiddie car racing, that's what Ohio is. Since 1934 the state has been home to the All-American Soap Box Derby, a Dayton-born, Akron-raised throwback to the roseate years when sports were fun and games.

This Indy of the eight-to-17-year-old set-known as the Gravity Grand Prix—is held on a 989-foot downhill track that ends just short of the University of Akron's football stadium. The cars look nothing like the homemade soapboxes-on-wheels that gave the race its name; today's racers are sleek fiberglass models that are built from $500 kits and reach a speed of about 30 mph. Kids love the ride, though 11-year-old Michelle Rich of Perrysville, Ohio, one of 432 racers on hand last Saturday for the 2003 finals, admitted, "It would be even funner if the cars had motors."

Over the years the race has survived financial hardship, skateboards, Nintendo and even cheating scandals—another of which cropped up on Saturday, when for the first time in 30 years a winner was disqualified. Wilton Blakely, 13, of Huntersville, N.C., champion of the rally stock category, was stripped of his title after his car was found to have two violations that might have given it extra stability and better steering. There was glue or epoxy holding a rear-axle pin in place and a steel bearing (instead of a penny or quarter, as allowed by rules) at the base of the steering assembly. Whether or not the infractions were intentional was unclear; a race official said that Blakely's father, who did most of the work in building the car, might simply have misinterpreted Derby rules.

Such complexities were not envisioned when the Derby was born. Seventy years ago, in the depths of the Depression, Dayton Daily News photographer Myron Scott spied some kids with homemade coaster cars and figured they would make a good picture. He also figured it would be neat to organize a race for them. Nineteen kids showed up, many with brightly painted cars cobbled out of scrap metal and crates. When 362 kids and 40,000 spectators showed for a second race that summer, the idea for a nationwide Derby was hatched.

Back then, the All-American wasn't all-inclusive: The color barrier wasn't broken until 1946, and girls weren't allowed to compete until '71. (According to the book Champions, Cheaters and Childhood Dreams, Derby pioneer Sandra Sosa was besieged by reporters: "They asked things like, 'Are you planning on burning your bra?' " she recalled. " Well, yeah, if I had something to put in it. I'm eleven.' ")

The first Derby had entrants from 34 cities. A sixth-grader, Bob Turner, took the $500 first prize. The pride of Muncie, Ind., wobbled to victory in a "soapbox" car made of galvanized steel, wood from a saloon bar and buck-fifty wheels that fell off just past the finish line. His buggy looked like the Civil War battleship Monitor and weighed about as much.

In 1935 the All-American moved to Akron, hub of the tire industry. New rules limited the weight, size and cost of the cars. Though adult supervision was permitted, all labor was supposed to be done by the kids. Boys who winced at the mere mention of soap were suddenly into soapboxes.

During its heyday the race played on newsreels in movie theaters across the country. Longtime sugar daddy General Motors pumped as much as $1 million a year into the event, and celebrities such as Jack Dempsey and Jimmy Stewart took part in the annual Oil Can Trophy race before the kids' heats. In 1951 Ronald Reagan finished second to ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy, Jerry Mahoney. The margin was slightly more than a wooden head.

Interest peaked in 1962, when the announced crowd of 75,000 made the All-American the fifth-biggest sporting event in the world that year. (Nowadays 15,000 is a good draw.) But the times, they were achangin'. "There was a lot of suspected adult involvement," says David Mann, the '62 winner, from Gary, Ind. "People started thinking kids really couldn't build these cars, which wasn't true, though it was pretty impossible to stay under the $35 cap on body parts."

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